Booze intake a point of contention in lawsuit over Aspen Highlands ski crash
Attorneys for the victim of an alleged hit-and-run at Aspen Highlands are pushing for punitive damages in their civil action against a Chicago man accused of skiing drunk after partying at Cloud Nine Bistro.
In a legal debate playing out in Pitkin County District Court, lawyers for a plaintiff suing a Chicago man over the Feb. 13, 2020, crash — alleged to have happened on the catwalk at the bottom of the intermediate Upper Jerome Run — said defendant Daniel Katamanin’s behavior was so egregious he also should pay punitive damages.
Katamin’s defense counsel, comprised of attorneys at the Denver firm Hall & Evans, said in an email Friday “we strongly dispute the Plaintiff’s allegations” and left it at that.
Yet details of the defense’s arguments, described in case pleadings, alleged it was actually the plaintiff who was drunk at the time of the collision and that his attorneys are relying on unproven circumstantial evidence gleaned from both social media postings of Katamin allegedly partying at Cloud Nine, as well as a receipt for $4,704 from the on-mountain restaurant. The defense also opposed plaintiff’s proposal to add punitive damages.
“The purpose of exemplary damages is not to compensate the injured party, but to punish wrongdoers as an example to others,” argued a Feb. 24-dated motion from the defense. “Merely negligent conduct cannot serve as the basis for exemplary damages.”
The current arguments over whether the plaintiff can pursue exemplary damages come after the negligence complaint was filed in May in Pitkin County District Court. The suit’s current version seeks damages to compensate the defendant for medical expenses, pain and suffering, past and future wage losses, emotional distress, permanent disability, as well as emotional anxiety, disability and embarrassment; past and future loss of normal life. The victim, also of Illinois, suffered a broken humerus and other injuries from the crash, his suit claimed.
The complaint accused Katamanin of violating Colorado’s Ski Safety Act by being under the influence at the time of the crash and not exchanging contact information with the skier after the collision. Additionally, as the uphill skier on the date of the incident, Katamanin failed to yield to the downhill skier with whom he collided.
The crash purportedly happened after 4 p.m. The skiers communicated but just briefly after the collision, and the alleged victim didn’t know the accused culprit’s identity at the time. The victim, who also had been at Cloud Nine with another group, was later transported from Highlands to Aspen Valley Hospital for treatment, according to the suit.
In the days after the collision, the victim, hoping to identify the skier who struck him by searching social media sites, found images and videos on Instagram of Katamanin spraying Champagne at Cloud Nine roughly an hour before the crash, the suit alleged.
Katamanin’s conduct — both leading up the crash and after it — showed he was behaving both willfully and wantonly, the necessary criteria to pursue punitive damages, the plaintiff’s February motion said.
In Colorado, claims for punitive damages in personal-injury cases can be an uphill battle for the plaintiff. Before plaintiffs can make such a claim in a lawsuit, they must get approval from a judge after a review of the evidence exchanged between both sides.
Colorado law also limits punitive damages to “the amount of such reasonable exemplary damages shall not exceed an amount which is equal to the amount of the actual damages awarded to the injured party,” according to the Colorado Revised Statutes.
“Punitive damages are intended to punish people when they recklessly disregard the safety and well-being of others,” said Michael Fox, an attorney with the Aspen firm Kalamaya | Goscha, which is representing the plaintiff and filed a motion arguing for punitive damages Feb. 10. “Skiing while drunk, just like driving while drunk, is willful and wanton conduct. An inference that may be drawn from Mr. Katamanin fleeing the scene is a consciousness of guilt. If Mr. Katamanin’s friends hadn’t posted photos and video of him partying at Cloud Nine on the date of the crash, we probably would have never found him, and he would have gotten away free and clear.”
Indeed, the plaintiff’s motion asking a judge to allow it to the amend the lawsuit to include a punitive-damages claim argued skiing drunk is no different than driving drunk. And because Katamanin was allegedly skiing intoxicated the date in question, punitive damages are applicable, argued the plaintiff’s motion, now pending before Pitkin County District Court Judge Chris Seldin.
“The conscious decision to disregard the safety of others in operating a motor vehicle under the influence has long held to rise to the level of exemplary damages. Defendant’s actions on the ski hill are no different,” said the motion.
Yet plaintiffs don’t have the evidence to support their claims that Katamanin was skiing drunk, Hall & Evans said in a written pleading Feb. 24.
As well, they contended that the plaintiff hasn’t met “his burden of proving willful or wanton conduct.” They argued that a receipt and photographic and video evidence of the party at Cloud Nine failed to prove Katamanin was drunk. The defense also argued that as much Champagne was sprayed in a show of celebratory behavior as was consumed by the Cloud Nine guests in the photos.
“Plaintiff presents inaccurate statements and half-truths to assert that Defendant was drunk and willfully endangered others by skiing down the mountain intoxicated and fleeing the scene of the accident,” the motion said. “Yet the evidence does not show what the Plaintiff says it does. Rather, the conveniently omitted evidence shows that Defendant was not drunk, did not willfully endanger others, and did not flee the scene; rather, it was Plaintiff who was drunk and endangered himself and others and now wants Defendant to pay for his self-sustained injuries after Plaintiff willfully chose to ski down the mountain while intoxicated.
“Moreover, there is no evidence that Defendant was intoxicated while skiing or that he fled the scene before ski patrol arrived. Rather, it was Plaintiff who appeared drunk as noted by (a ski patroller) in the official accident report,” Hall & Evans’ motion argued.
In a March 4 filing, Fox countered that evidence showing Katamanin was drunk included the plaintiff’s “recollection of Defendant stumbling and appearing drunk after the collision into him,” the social media photographs of the defendant “holding alcoholic beverages at Cloud Nine Bistro minutes before the collision,” as we as several pictures showing him “with several empty bottles of wine and beer in surrounding him at the table,” a “receipt from Cloud Nine Bistro indicating purchase of alcoholic beverages,” along with Katamanin stating in a deposition that he had been drinking at the restaurant with eight other people.
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